Like Springsteen and his Telecaster, Neil Young with his Black Les Paul, or Hendrix and his upside-down Strat, whenever I see Dexter Romweber, he's almost always got a signature guitar in hand or nearby; a black, glitter-covered Silvertone. However, unlike those aforementioned rockers, Dex seems to have stayed (or been kept) away from the enormous fame and fortune that Bruce, Neil and Jimi have garnered over the years. That's not to say he doesn't have a legion of fans out there, but when you say 'Dexter Romweber' to your everyday music fan, you're more likely to get a "Huh?" than  an "Oh, Yeah!" Not that it's his fault. Since the mid-80s, when a lot of us were rockin' to the 'New South' sounds from R.E.M., Dreams So Real, Love Tractor, Let's Active, Guadalcanal Diary, the dBs and others, Dex's group Flat Duo Jets made an impression at the local level through sweaty, intense rock and roll throwdown gigs filled with stripped down, tough-as-nails originals and choice covers, and those not fortunate enough to see Dex and drummer Crow (or any number of FDJ configurations) live got a glimpse via an MTV "120 Minutes" piece or the "Athens GA Inside/Out" movie that played many an art-house theatre back in the day. Though revered and influential, wide distribution of their recordings arrived late in the game (FDJ's first real album didn't come out 'til 1990). That, along with sometimes disappointing sales, unfriendly focus group-run radio... all this (and more; see 'Two Headed Cow' if you can) conspired to keep the Flat Duo Jets star from rising beyond a particular degree in the rock and roll firmament, and the band called it quits after 1998's "Lucky Eye." Dexter has had plenty of solo (and Duo) output since then, and his Silvertone has been by his side for nearly the entire ride.

Dex has had a renaissance of sorts in the past half-dozen years or so thanks to rocker Jack-of-all-trades White's accolades. "I'm oblivious to my 'star status,' " says Dex, with a bemused smile that is not bitter, or regretful or 'coulda shoulda' at all. It's just a matter-of-fact statement of the Romweber reality, like so many others that Dex was kind enough to share with me on a recent Sunday morning in his adopted hometown of Carrboro, NC. Our conversation ranged from technical and romantic notions regarding guitars, to musical influences (you won't believe the first record Dex bought), to daily demons, to his latest album. We'll get to all that in a 'graph or two, but first... back to that Silvertone.

It's the famous 1448 model, the one that came with the amp built right into the case; the one most folks think of when they hear the name 'Silvertone.' It was a stroke of marketing genius by Sears, and if today's collectors market is any indication, they sold several thousand of 'em in the three years or so that the setup was offered. Good thing, because Dex has been through "about thirteen" of them himself. "I wear them out. Some get stolen. New Orleans... Austin, I've lost a couple. I think the one I currently have is my favorite."
 



 

Why Silvertone?

"Silvertones are fascinating things. Other guitars are just way too clean for me. There are other artists that I like that play Gibsons and Fenders... but in terms of what I do, for me, Silvertone's where it's at. I love the sound I get out of that baby. I got my first model from a guitarist in a band called Killer Filler, he also played with my sister's band Mondo Combo... his name is Pete Gamble; he sold me my first model, so I was playing them very young. I have photos of me playing them as a teenager. I had a really peculiar amp, called a Conn... they made saxophones, it was this big UFO-looking thing from the 60s, and with the combination of the 1448 and that Conn amp, I got the weirdest, wildest sounds. The Flat Duo Jets record "In Stereo" was recorded using that setup, but I had the habit of kicking my amps over, and I ruined that amp, which I really regret, 'cause it was really a great amp. At other times I was using other guitars in the studio, but the 1448 has a sound that I always compared to an organ. It's a blues sound, it's a raw sound, it's a bassy sound, and like I said... it's not too clean." Inquiring what, if any, modifications Dex has made to his 1448s over the years, he says "I get a different bridge on mine, and some new tuners. You really gotta wrestle with 'em." Current road and studio amplification? "I use a 1982 Randall that's as raw as that 1448, and they tend to go pretty well together. It's been through a lot of tours it's pretty beat up, but it's my raunchy amp."

After our chat about matters of technicality and Silvertonium, we turned to a world of subjects; a name or question would lead to an area of interest, and we'd proceed from there.


Dex Romweber Duo

Is That You In the Blue?

Bloodshot Records
New album

"I'm real proud of it, and Sara's happy about it, too; she says it's the coolest record she's ever been on, and man... it's a good record. I hope folks get something out of it. "


Influences

"I don't have any idea of how many people listen to or like what we do, but I can honestly say that when I leave this Earth that I've made a contribution to the arts. The songs and influences come from artists like Benny Joy, Jerry Lee Lewis, Patsy Cline, Sarah Vaughan and Ray Charles and Elvis and surf bands and Eddie Cochran and Django Reinhardt... there's a slew of artists that I really love... it's heavy to think about." I mention that I live in Link Wray's birthplace of Dunn, NC, and Dex comes back with a tribute to the influential guitarist and another short list that had a few surprises; "Link Wray is a great influence and always a source of inspiration for me... and so is Pete Townshend, Jimmy Page... Big Joe Williams... Jackie Gleason." Jackie Gleason? "I love 'The Honeymooners.' "


Do you remember the first record you bought as a kid?

"I was a KISS fan. In certain ways, I still am.  I thought KISS was the bee's knees. I saw them in West Virginia in '78. The sound was awful, but I got to see my idols. Eventually, I started digging deeper into music. I like the early '60s Rolling Stones... stuff like "Under My Thumb," I thought is was killer. I like Led Zeppelin... I got into all that, and then I found Elvis and fifties music, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. I loved the simplicity of it. Songs like "Blue Moon of Kentucky," "That's All Right, Mama," when I heard those... well, a lot of what I do came from them. I tend to think of myself as a rockabilly artist, but not the Gretsch guitar/stand-up-bass/one snare drum/generic pompadour rockabilly. I play a lot of different types of music, so when I say rockabilly, to me, that encompasses everything, 'cause I think the rockabillies used everything, including jazz. I mean, a lot of the solos from those cats were jazz solos!"
 

Jack White

"When I see him I always like to say 'You're from Montgomery Wards and I'm from Sears.' I dig the sound he gets."
 

Rick Miller

"Well, Rick I've known a very long time. I met him back in the eighties, and we played with his first incarnation of Southern Culture on the Skids, and we were always running into each other, traveling around and doin' gigs. I didn't really know him that well, and we were more just friends and aficionados of the music we played. But I've always liked recording with him; "Blues That Defy My Soul" was recorded with him, and I always worked well with Rick, and I always understood the sound he was trying to get, 'cause I like that sound, too. His studio has the perfect sound for what I like. Sara really enjoyed working with Rick, and for me... well, he's just an easy goin' cat."
 


"Is That You In The Blue?" is a brimful musical grab bag courtesy of Dexter Romweber and his sister Sara. Dex has said that he calls himself a rockabilly artist because in those nascent days of rock and roll, pioneering musicians threw everything they had into the mix: country, blues, jazz, pop, R & B... and that's all here on this release, mashed up in a big copper kettle with a sack of surf-rock added in, distilled through a black Silvertone and a drum kit and served up to us in this precarious year of our Lord 2011 in a tall, cool glass full of everything we love about Dexter Romweber's music. From the kick-out-the-jams opener of "Jungle Drums," to the darkly beautiful  "Death of Me" and "Midnight Sun" to the off-the-cuff alien invasion B-movie comedy of "Homicide" and on through every track on this baker's dozen (we get Benny Joy's "Wish You Would" twice), Dex's guitar playing and voice command and cajole, soothe and stir, riff, roar and reflect. Straight ahead surf-rock descends into atonal madness ("Gurdjeff Girl") before dropping back in and shootin' the curl on into shore. Dexter's pop croon crosses over into a  rrrrrockabilly rasp on several tunes, and that vocal grit powers most of the straight-ahead rockers here ("Drums," "Homicide," "Wish"). The title track brings to mind the drama of Roy Orbison, with a kiss-off that cuts the sweet taste with a bitter twist.  "Brazil" is great fun, "Climb Down" is as rumble-y as Link Wray on a sunny day, and  the yearning romance of "Think of Me" and "I Remember Darling" is balanced by the end-of-the-road sentiment of "Nowhere," and an irony-free reading of Johnny Cash's somber explication of Christianity's key tenet, "Redemption."

Sara's contribution to this masterful mix cannot be understated; her tasteful timekeeping is as focused and detailed as Dex' panoramic musical vision, rhythmically rounding up every scene with a finesse and flair that fits. Rick Miller's transparent production keeps the Romweber siblings center stage, and the musical guests providing an extra guitar, a wailin' sax, or an atmospheric vocal or keyboard fill compliment rather than complicate in every instance.

As a timeless collection, "Is That You In the Blue?" feels like a an afternoon of AM pop radio from the pre-Beatles 1960s, when you'd hear Elvis, the Surfaris, Andy Williams, Lonnie Mack, Terry Stafford,  Brenda Lee, Gene Pitney and Ray Stevens all in the course of an hour. As a contemporary piece of music, it's the perfect antidote to today's artlessly auto-tuned assembly line pop and the meager meanderings of manufactured eccentricity that masquerade as meaningful. The music in these grooves is ready and able to take you to that breezy afternoon of a half-century ago... the windows rolled down, a wide open road ahead, and no particular place to go but everywhere. I sincerely urge you to turn up the volume and take the ride.

Feel mighty proud and straighten your tie, Mr. Romweber. "Blue?" is some of the Best. Dex. Ever.
 


Darkness

I ask Dex about a statement he made in a YouTube film a couple years back about his admirable goal onstage being to "Break into the world of spirit." I asked if it happened often enough for him these days. "Oh, yeah. I generally say a few prayers before I go on and that really can free me up or make me feel a bit stronger, but in the past few years I've played more shows that I like than ones I don't." Our conversation turns deeper as Dex relates an incident from years ago on a Flat Duo Jets tour that changed his life in a fundamental way. "I had a very traumatic experience on the road years ago... a very violent thing that happened in Florida and it changed my life and set it on a different course and I wish it'd never happened... I found myself in some kind of war among people and it was the worst impression I ever received in my life on humanity, and it changed me. It changed me. You can be hijacked by fear, and suddenly life doesn't appear  as safe as you thought it was... so I've had to deal with that, and it's... been a hell of an education on the human mind. As strong as we may seem, we're actually rather fragile, and when you're right up close to a sense of death... I don't know, it just changes you.  Every day is a quest to find my way out of that. It's a heavy thing, man."


Light

Dex shakes off the gloom as we wrap up on a positive and expansive and revealing and, to me, really beautiful note as I ask him about his beliefs regarding things beyond this Earthly pale. They tumble out so easily, I can tell they're part of Dex's very heart and soul: "I'm aware of different dimensions to life; and I don't think this is the only one. I think the soul is on a course of development, and I believe I've been here before. I believe in spiritual hierarchies of very powerful beings that are unseen, I believe in a central creator and I believe that the Earth is just one of its hobbies, <laughing> and a weird-ass hobby it is. I believe that you can ask for help. I love the mystery of things. I believe there are karmic debts and scenarios in our minds, emotions and bodies. I think that the ultimate goal is to just not hurt anybody, and that's not always easy; because there's like... weird energies... in us and outside of us. It's been a little perilous for me, but at the same time there's been this urging for me to pull it together, as I know what it's like to be ripped apart. The Earth is a weird place, I wish it didn't have to be so painful sometimes, but as you know, there's good, too. I'm seeking the good times, man."

Good times, Dex... I wish you a heapin' helpin' of 'em, and I thank you for all the ones you've given us.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Check the Dex & Sara 2011 Summer Tour Map.
Buy a ticket. Take the ride.

 

More featured articles at Silvertone World:

Dexter Romweber Artist Page

What's It Worth? ~ Pricing/Commentary Page

From A Dano Six

Aristocratically Yours

Silvertone Shame
 
Photo credits:
Seated Dex: Joe Boy Sidney
Record Store Dex: Christina Hutchinson/Facebook
45 Sleeve: Third Man Records
'Blue' Cover: Bloodshot Records
1448 Listing: 1962 Sears Wish Book

 

2011 Randy Holmes ~ SilvertoneWorld.net